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"All Up in the Air - How Orkney responded to the development of air transport" by Moya McDonald: Edinburgh meeting of 11 December 2018

Andrew Parrott with a map of the area in his talk.d

Andrew Parrott with a map of the area in his talk.

© John Yellowlees, 2018

Railways transformed mainland Scotland as profoundly in the nineteenth century as would air travel impact on island life in the twentieth.

The first landing had been on 4 December 1910 when a party of German balloonists was blown off course. A Norwegian explorer who had taken lessons from Bleriot flew from Scotland to Stavanger in 1914 before joining the Royal Flying Corps.

The Defence Flying Corps established a Great War base at Houton, now the port for Flotta and Hoy, but seaplanes relicated for a time to the Loch of Stenness where officers moved into the nearby hotel. Because it proved too shallow, the planes had to move back to Houton, but the officers did not follow ...

Nothing is left of the airship base at Haldale for these craft like balloons did not go with the windy conditions of Orkney. Two SSP airships were lost with their crew before the experiment ended.

Photos not previously seen show how Cargill became a centre for balloons to monitor aircraft, and HMS Campania was a Cunard liner converted to an aircraft-carrier that missed the order to sail for Jutland but met her fate by colliding with the Royal Oak at Rosyth. Captain Oliver Swan formerly Schwan became the RAF commander for the Orkneys (sic) and was the first man to take off from saltwater but a cable in his balloon snapped and he drowned aged 19. Sqdn. Cdr. Edwin Harris Dunning from Harwich landed the first plane on a ship, HMS Furness, but on his third landing the engine faltered and he banged his head and went over the side, drowning at 25.

Sir Alan Cobham brought his Air Circus to John O'Groats, and thus an awareness of air-mindedness reached Orkney, and though the Council rejected his application to take it to the islands he did visit.

Capt. Ted Fresson - who liked dressing as a woman so as to respond to the challenge that was there any woman so brave as to fly a plane - landed at Kirkwall in a DH60 Moth and decided it would be a grand place to bring an air show. He came back with an Avro offering flights around Orkney, and Agnes Shearer who had just started work at The Orcadian newspaper became the first girl to fly across the Pentland Firth. Auntie Robbo by Ann Scott Moncrieff became a classic, but she drowned near Nairn aged 28.

Fresson thought about setting up an airline, and on coming to Inverness in 1932 saw the potential of Longman for an aerodrome. Orkney businesses realised that an 8-hour journey by sea and rail would become 1 hour 40 minutes with a call at Wick. The Scotsman backed the idea of daily deliveries, and in 1932 Midland and Scottish Air Services started flying with its first pilot Vivienne Drinkwater carrying four passengers. A rival Highland Airways began operating from Wideford where all that now remains is a cairn with the support of island distilleries, and Inverness Aerodrome was opened at Longman by the Duchess of Sutherland, the fare being £2.75 single and £5 return.

Captain Eric Gander-Dower set up a rival Aberdeen later Allied Airways operation from Stromness, flying over a garage so as to tell the taxi-driver to set off, and having wanted to be an actor painted his planes in footlight colours.

The first civilian to be killed in the Second War died in an air strike while trying to rescue his neighbours. HMS Tern was built at Twatt where a visitor centre is now planned, but land had to be commandeered at Hatston for HMS Sparrowhawk : today the pedestrian route from the Northlink terminal into Kirkwall follows the runway.

In the 1960s a route was pioneered from Orkney by Kail Airways to Copenhagen, and Jo Grimond MP found it quicker to get that way to London until it was closed down by SAS. Cancelled during the war, the interisland air service did not resume until 1967. The first air ambulance operated in 1933, but after the war the emergency services reverted to using lifeboats until the intervention of John Firth saw to the arrival of that modern staple of Orkney aviation, the Britten-Norman Islander aircraft built on the Isle of Wight.

Loganair can claim to be the operator of the longest continuing air service in Europe since Royal Mail has been carried by air to and from Orkney since 1934, and survived predatory competition from FlyBe. Of Orkney wartime aircraft types, the Rapiers disappeared to go cropdusting in Europe, and a Dakota is lost in the depths of the Science Museum store at Wroughton, but a Gypsy Moth has been preserved and is flying today.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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